07/13/2012 08:11 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Beyond 'Shoe-Forking': Why You Should Go Barefoot And Eat With Your Hands

"My friend and I have this 'shoe-fork' theory of modern life," says Martin Reynolds, who hasn't worn shoes in months aside from an 18-hour round trip from Costa Rica to Nicaragua for a visa renewal.


My husband Kiran and I, walking alongside Martin on the beach at sunset, raise our eyebrows. "Go on?"

His long, curly blond hair tossing in the ocean breeze, Martin explains. "We wear shoes, rather than walking barefoot on the earth. We use forks, rather than eating with our hands. Basically, we're always putting a layer between ourselves and the world. Not that those things don't have a purpose at times...."

The 24-year-old surf instructor from England, who currently resides in Santa Teresa with his girlfriend (and my fitness coach) Gem Yates, is wise beyond his years. Kiran and I have been hanging out a lot with Gem and Martin since arriving here on Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula two weeks ago. We are taking a three-month break from LA to follow our dreams, writing a sci-fi/fantasy trilogy together while also enjoying surfing, eating well, and the simple life in this small coastal community.


The sun drops further towards the watery horizon, casting a pink and orange spell across the sky that reminds me of sherbet. "Growing up in Hawaii, we didn't have to wear shoes to school until ninth grade," I say. "Going barefoot was fun. It felt like we were being given permission to really be kids."

Kiran comments, "Yeah, in India, you eat with your hands. You get to feel your food. It's more intimate."

As we stroll, we come up with numerous other examples of ways in which people put up barricades between themselves and life: Parents asking everyone who meets their babies to apply hand sanitizer, keeping their kids away from dirt and pets to the point where they are more likely to develop allergies and asthma later in life. Washing our hair too often, so that we strip away the natural oils that keep it conditioned.

When we travel, many of us check in to all-inclusive resorts where we get to hole up in an air-conditioned room, stroll around a protected, manicured campus, swim in a temperature-controlled pool, and eat the food we're accustomed to having at home. We can move around in a bubble, even in other countries. You've been to Mexico... or have you?

I cited a recent survey of young adults in the UK, which offered shocking evidence of the shoe-fork theory. Only just over half of the 16- to 23-year-olds who completed a test about where food comes from knew that milk comes from a dairy cow. Only half identified steak as coming from cattle. One in 10 believed that eggs are made from wheat or maize (which begs the question: Don't they know the joke about which came first?).

Even if you're more aware than those British teens, unless you regularly visit a farmers' market or belong to a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, you probably don't know a single person who grows and produces the food you eat. When we go to the grocery store, we often pick up neatly plastic-wrapped packages of prime rib or fish filets without ever seeing the whole animal. I suspect it's because we don't want to think about where our meat comes from. The anonymity of boneless, skinless chicken breasts protects us from having to consider the animal that was raised and slaughtered for our benefit.

"How about climate control?" I say. "I'm all for putting on the AC here in Costa Rica for a few hours in the afternoon when it's hot and humid and we need to write. But when I lived in Singapore for three months, I was amazed by how little exposure I had to the elements. I'd find myself going from my apartment to a taxi to an office building or store to a restaurant and back again, rarely stepping out of air conditioning or breathing fresh air."

Kiran laughs. "It's the opposite here in Costa Rica. I feel like I'm dirty all the time. Even if you shower, you'll be sweating within five minutes of walking to the grocery store or beach. You'll have mud splattered across the backs of your leg from the dirt roads. I've even given up on keeping my clothes clean."

We turn our discussion to why the shoe-fork mentality is so prevalent in today's world.

"It's like people don't want to get too close or too involved with the messiness of life," Martin speculates.

I nod. "I think it gives us the illusion of control. The illusion, I say, because sooner or later something will come along and burst our bubble. A fierce hurricane or tornado that literally tears down our walls. A car accident or illness that takes the life of someone near and dear. A break-up or divorce or loss of a job. These incidents remind us: That's right, I'm not in charge."

"We're afraid of interacting directly with the world. We need that bubble around us to feel safe and secure." Kiran says. "That's one of the reasons why I love surfing so much, though the same thing applies to any sport that gets you in the ocean: You're in it. You're wet. There's no way to avoid it. You feel the water engulf you. Gravity shifts and your feeling of being weighted down to the earth floats away. It's freeing, but it's also terrifying at times. The waves and currents shift constantly, a reminder of how not-in-control we really are."

So, what can we do to avoid falling into this trap of modern life?

Being fearless means getting in there and getting wet. Literally. By jumping into the ocean and feeling ourselves pushed around by the waves. By taking off our shoes and tickling our toes with the grass. By exercising in the great outdoors instead of in a gym. (Recent studies give us heaps of data proving this is better for us, too: more mood boosting, motivating, and stress reducing.) By taking that vacation and forcing ourselves out of our comfort zone, into the city, talking to locals, away from the Lonely Planet guidebook and TripAdvisor reviews. (Martin recommends the book Vagabonding, by Rolf Potts.)

But it's just as important to avoid the shoe-fork mentality from a metaphorical perspective. This, to me, means jumping in and giving things a try, taking risks -- whether that be a new business or romance or just an unfamiliar food. Give it a shot. If you fail, so be it. Feel humiliated when your startup doesn't get enough funding to survive the first year. Sink into despair when your relationship falls apart and you find yourself single again.

As Woody Allen once said, "If you're not failing every now and again, it's a sign you're not doing anything very innovative."

All these experiences will, if you allow them, help you become less fearful of life because you will realize, time and again, that getting dirty (usually) doesn't do you that much damage in the end. Your ego may be bruised. Or your elbow. But you often emerge on the other side of the failure process an even stronger, wiser, more compassionate person who is more determined to try new things than ever before.

You're alive. You're aware of every moment, how precious it is. And sooner or later, you'll get into the flow. Not by controlling everything, but rather by allowing yourself to be naturally with things as they are.

Photo credit: Kiran Ramchandran

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